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11. 5. 2021    Science

Eliška Knotková

Eliška Knotková
is a designer and founder of the ecodesign studio Balance is Motion, and a doctoral student at the Faculty of Environmental Technology, University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague. She has long been involved with innovative materials and environmental topics. She also worked as a material consultant and lecturer at the Centre for Innovative Materials matériO Prague.


Eliška, can you tell me exactly what you are doing right now?

Eliška: I'm looking for ways to combine the creative thinking of designers with an analytical approach to data that testifies to the environmental sustainability of products. I think that the combination of these two approaches is key for us to be able to effectively promote and apply ecodesign in practice. And basically, this topic penetrates both my work and the research within the doctoral study at FET UCT. As a designer and, subsequently, a material consultant, I tried to take into account the environmental aspects of design but I often lacked the ‘hard data’ for truly informed decisions. That's why I threw myself back into studying at a university that couldn’t be further from an art school. And I’m very grateful for this opportunity. I see the whole thing as a lesson in finding balance. Because design needs to sensitively balance several key aspects - attractiveness, functionality, environmental and economic aspects. That's why our ecodesign studio is called Balance is Motion. I don't think we can expect this complex problem to be solved once and for all and that it will disappear. It's about constantly moving forward, about learning and testing.

As part of your work at matériO Prague, you lectured on materials at selected universities. What does such a lecture look like? On a course called Materiology, do you teach about materials in general or do you focus on the innovative/growing ones, etc.? According to my information, the subject has been at the school for many years and primarily hasn’t focussed on sustainability.

Eliška: The Materiology lecture has really changed in recent years. Instead of passing on basic information about individual material groups, it focusses more on the broader context that concerns materiality. However, innovative materials have been part of the syllabus since the beginning of the course, as it’s also part of matériO’s DNA. In recent years, we’ve found that students need to be confronted with topics that have been the focus of attention abroad for quite some time - whether it’s environmental sustainability, digitisation, wellbeing or the circular economy.

In recent years - I believe that your work has had a significant effect on this - matériO’s lectures are the only ones that deal with topics of more responsible creation. In the existing design fields, the responsible approach is covered by few final assignments. Are you aware of specific design fields in our country that would focus on innovative materials or more considerate creation in general (except SSUD Eko textil)?

Eliška: Unfortunately, I’m not. And it's something I'd like to focus on in the future. I think that it's necessary to approach the subject of ecodesign systematically and to enable interdisciplinary cooperation between students.

Do you feel from the responses to your lectures that there is a growing interest among students in a more responsible approach to their creation and material choice? What do you think motivates them?

Eliška: The interest of students is definitely rising and I would say considerably. For one thing, they’re affected by the topic personally; they feel the need to become part of the solution and not the problem. And for another, it's a global trend. If they ignore it, the proverbial train will leave the station.

And what about our design scene in general? In several interviews, I’ve noted that Czech designers are talking about the fact that the Czech market and production are not yet adapted to take the environmental factor as the dominant aspect. For a simple reason - it isn’t economically possible. How do you view this economic problem? Do you think that consumers still prefer cheaper options over high quality, local ones?

Eliška: This is certainly true to some extent but, at the same time, I wouldn't blame it only on consumers. On the contrary, I think that the responsibility for the environmental footprint of a product should lie primarily with manufacturers (hence the designers), as they can influence a lot during the product development phase.

And it's possible to develop a more environmentally friendly solution that's financially affordable for users. Mostly, however, it requires a radical change in thinking about the product and redesign from the perspective of its entire life cycle. Theoretically, there can also be financial savings, for example, if some production processes or transport logistics can be made more efficient.

When we talk about the design scene in our country, I sometimes feel that it's full of greenwashing strategies and the most environmentally friendly individuals don't explicitly brag about their approach - on the contrary. How do you think a customer can tell if a company/studio is really responsible?

Eliška: Unfortunately, this isn't only our country's problem, but a global one. So far, there’s no unified system that would clearly inform the customer about the environmental aspects of a product or allow for an easy comparison of several products. Of course, there are different types of eco-labels but they differ and it's difficult for consumers to navigate them. The European Union is preparing a single PEF (Product Environmental Footprint) eco-labeling scheme, which should improve the situation, so we'll see.

Isn’t there a new designer role here? Shouldn't the designer also be a kind of interpreter? Who not only designs products, but tells the true story of how products are created and how to dispose of them after they wear out?

Eliška: I don't think this role is new, just read Victor Papank's book from the 1970s, which promoted these ideas. However, if we want designers to be transparent, they must be able to obtain information that's often unavailable to them at the moment. It's therefore important to promote transparency across supply chains.

The (responsible) designer can thus become a guide and, with the help of workshops and open-source recipes, pass their experience on and prepare people who aren't tired of life for local DIY production. What do you think about designers like Paula Nerlich, who make a living from such an approach (HOME KITCHEN LAB project)?

Eliška: It definitely makes sense. It's important that people learn how to work with ‘matter’ and at least occasionally try to make something themselves. We need to raise awareness of where the individual raw materials come from, how they can be handled and where they'll end up. And I believe that personal and tactile experience with materials is quite essential for this awareness. It can overcome the alienation from the origin of products that has grown in our society since the advent of the industrial revolution.

If we talk about processes and products that can be considered environmentally friendly, can LCA analysis be used for such a calculation? Can you describe your own experience with LCA? And can you give design students some general responsible tips?

Eliška: Life Cycle Assessment is a method with great potential for use in design as it allows you to quantify the environmental impact that the product has throughout its entire life cycle. Unfortunately, in practice, this process is still difficult. Mainly due to complicated data collection, which results in the financial and time-consuming nature of this method. But I believe that, gradually, its application will become more frequent and obvious. I'd like to contribute to this within the services provided by Balance is Motion and within the doctoral studies at the Institute of Chemical Technology, where I have the opportunity to research this topic in more depth under the guidance of an LCA expert, Professor Vladimír Kočí. My personal experience with LCA is such that it often brings unexpected results. And that's its strength because, in a world that is so complex, we can no longer rely solely on our assumptions. It's good to have a tool to check them out.

1 Photo: David Konečný

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